The Shadow Elephant: A Tender Illustrated Fable About What It Takes to Unblue Our Sorrows and Lighten the Load of Our Heaviest Emotions
By Maria Popova
The strange thing about life, the wondrous thing about life, is that it is impossible to dull one hue of our emotional experience without dulling the entire spectrum, impossible to feel deeply at one end of it without feeling as deeply at the other. And without the chromatic intensity of feeling life deeply and fully, why live at all?
This elemental truth is especially pronounced in a creative life — a life that requires of us what Virginia Woolf called, in her transcendent existential epiphany, the “shock-receiving capacity” that makes an artist an artist. And yet we go to extreme lengths to avoid receiving this shock of aliveness, to avoid fully feeling the portions of the spectrum we deem unhandsome or inconvenient, to dull our own sadnesses and divert others from theirs, then walk away when we fail. It is a human impulse, this urge to shoo the sadness away. It is also dehumanizing, for only when we let the blues rush in with their full intensity do we become fully alive and awake to the dazzling spectrum of feeling that makes life worth living.
The book opens with a lovely quote from The Little Prince, line-broken like a poem:
And when you are comforted
(we all eventually are)
you will be happy to have known me.
You will always be my friend.
Then the story unfolds, introducing the melancholy protagonist — a great blue elephant, prostrated with a heavy feeling against a great gradient of blue.
Some said the elephant was gloomy.
Some said he was trying to hide his sadness.
Some said he preferred the shadows.
The other animals of the savannah — bright and cheerful and suncast — try to lift the elephant out of his gloom by telling him silly stories, dancing him silly dances, bringing him their favorite foods.
Not a smile. Not a sound.
The elephant listened attentively,
but remained in the shadows.
And then, one day, a tiny mouse out of breath emerges from another scale of existence and asks simply whether she can sit beside the elephant and rest a little. This small ask — this nonjudgmental and unanxious presence with the elephant’s sadness — becomes the portal of his transformation.
The elephant is at first incredulous that the mouse isn’t there to distract him from his blues with some gimmick. But then she begins to tell him her own story — how she had gone out into the savannah to find her sister’s most precious possession, a golden key; how she had walked a whole day, only to become as lost as the key; how she is now terrified that she would find neither what she went looking for nor her way home.
Something about the mouse’s plight, about the ease with which she shares her sorrow with him, unlatches something in the elephant. He begins to cry — big, silent tears. Then she begins to cry, by that exquisite natural bond of creaturely sympathy that binds us when we cease to feel separate and alone in our sorrow.
Slowly, “drained of his tears,” the elephant rises, large and light, and hoists the mouse onto his back, offering to give her a ride home. Gently, without unease or demand, she invites him to tell her his own story.
“I can try,” he exhales as they vanish together behind the horizon of aloneness.
The Shadow Elephant comes from my friends at the visionary Enchanted Lion Books, makers of uncommonly poetic and profound illustrated portals into the emotional universe — treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and The Forest (also illustrated by Vidali).
Complement this particular treasure with The Heart and the Bottle — Oliver Jeffers’s tender illustrated fable of what we stand to lose when we deny our difficult emotions — then revisit a moving animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Published October 29, 2020